The First Feminist of the New World

6 Min Read


Nafisa Binte Borhan

Inside the box, we all are told that feminism can only be defined from a political perspective and by protesting in female movements. Could we ever think of a proto-feminist figure who gave birth to liberal feminism through her writings living in a patriarchal society?

She was an outstanding writer, poet, dramatist, scholar, and nun who got recognition during the 20th century. After her recognition, she not only has been recognissd as Colonial Latin America’s first great poet and the last great poet of the Spanish Baroque, but also has been viewed as an “icon of female intellectual independence”. She is Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

‘‘Patent is your arrogance
that fights with many weapons
since in promise and insistence,
you join world, flesh, and devil.’’

These are the last verses of the poem You Foolish Men by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, which generations of Mexican school-children have memorised as their ballad. This poem has been marked as the beginning of the development of Cruz as a controversial figure.

Beginning of her life from the ordinary

Cruz was born out of wedlock in 1651 near Mexico City, Mexico, when stereotypical gender roles was the norm. Her mother was Creole and her father Spanish. Juana’s mother sent her to live with relatives. During the post-Colonial era in Latin America, men were considered superior and women were restricted to doing domestic chores. All abode this social hierarchy except Cruz, which made her a controversial figure during the 1600s.

Memoir of a child prodigy

She was only three when she learned how to read and write Latin; by the age of five, she could do accounts. She wrote her first poem at eight and by her adolescence period, she gained complete knowledge of Greek logic and the Aztec language of Nahuatl. Furthermore, she used to teach Latin to young children at thirteen. Her desire and eagerness to learn about the world motivated her to be a self-taught scholar when her family didn’t allow her to pursue education. Her vast knowledge and skill never failed to amaze the scholars who tested her and doubted her.

“No fixed occupation which might curtail my freedom to study” 

For the prevalent social stratification of marriage, she became a nun. Later on, her works were published in Spain.

Now, her former cloister is a centre for higher education. Her decision to become a nun marked the onset of her development as a tendentious figure in history, who continued to gaining knowledge and inspire feminist movements.

Was she only a scholar?

She was a poet, dramatist, scholar, and an outstanding writer of the Latin American colonial period and of the Hispanic Baroque, along with being a staunch advocate for women’s rights. She exhibited all the distinctive qualities of a woman living in a patriarchal society.

Her works

She wrote of her native Mexico at times. A short play introduces the religious drama El Divino Narciso, which synthesises the Aztec and Christian religions. The carols made by her enclose a diverting mix of Nahuatl (a Mexican Indian language) and Hispano-African and Spanish language.

After confuting the comedies played by Sor Juana by scholars, Juana apportioned the aspiration of humour and used it as a socially acceptable medium with which to question perceptions of men and women. Pawns of a House is contemplated as a unique work in colonial Spanish-American theatre due to the management of intrigue, representation of the complicated system of marital relationships, and the turnover in civic life. Along with drama, comedy, poetry and philosophy, she was interested in music as well.

She was a proto-feminist in interpreting philosophers and scholars. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Feminist Reconstruction of Biography and Text, a book was written about the life of Sor Juana through the feminist lens.

The first feminist manifesto

In 1690, Juana was condemned after her Athenagorical Letter got published without her permission for her comments and for the lack of serious religious content in her poems. In response to all the recriminations made against her, she gave a profound reply after which the Archbishop and others demanded that she give up any non-religious books or studies. The value of her response is an extraordinary document now which is known as famous Respuesta a Sor Filotea as it addresses the first feminist manifesto, upholding a woman’s right to education.

Controversies surrounded her when she continued her non-religious writings in a more feminist tone. It resulted in Sor Juana’s forced abjuration, to which she responded by devoting herself to a rigorous penance.

Her demise

She died around the age of forty-four while tending to her sick companions during the cholera epidemic on 17 April, 1695.

Sor Juana keeps on holding her legacy as the pioneering feminist of Latin America being avidly remembered with great significance to the present day.

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